Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Super Belgian Happy Fun Live Drinkathon

So, get to talking about what the best beer is long enough, and someone is bound to bring up Chimay. One of only a handful of breweries run by Trappist monks, Chimay is often called out for making one of the best. I know what you're saying - good beer, made by monks, in Belgium? Remember though, this is the country that supplied us with their eponymous waffles and reveres french fries (frites), chocolate and cyclocross. By those standards, everything that country des should be awesome. Which brings us to today's review...

My own personal introduction to Chimay came back in college, when my now brother-in-law was in the midst of his 10th or 20th Old Chicago's World Beer Tour. During those hazy days, Chimay always came up as the best of the bunch. I had a few back then, but since my palate and liver were more geared toward quantity rather than quality, it was pretty much a wash. This past weekend, however, as he and I hit the liqour store and were mulling spending big on a bottle of Stranahan's, we (literally) stumbled across Chimay gift sets: 12 oz bottles of each of their three beers, and a goblet-style glass that is apparently ideal for true beer tasting. Stranahan's would have to wait (and my bank account thanks me for it. Seriously. Stuff is damn pricey).

Which finally, again, brings us to tonight's marathon testing. I'll walk through each of the beers as I knock them back, starting with Chimay Trippel (its got a white cap). Reading Chimay's description of the Trippel is a bit ridiculous: apparently, according to the monks, it tastes of 'muscat' and 'dry grapes' (really? Muscat? I hope you, the reader, am as suspicious as I am. Don't we hire people to exterminate muscats? Dodgy, with a capital D). On appearance, it fits the bill as a classic Trippel - light colored, a little hazy and apparently bout 8% alcohol (gotta like that last part). Taste wise, its good, maybe not knock your socks off good, but tasty. A little bitter and hoppy, but not too much so. Maybe a bit of flavor from the yeast, a sort of bread-like flavor. And you can really taste that muscat.

Round two: Chimay Blue (also known as the Grande Reserve). Before we dive too deeply into this next review, I think some learnings from tonight's testing are already apparent, most notably: strong beer+shitty work day+long workout-three square meals = trouble. We'll see just how this progresses, but I can tell you that a bottle of Chimay's Blue isn't going to help my clarity of brevity. With that, Blue's tale of the tape: 9% alcohol, fragrance of yeast and 'a light, flowery rosy touch'. Right. I'll agree, its got a kick, and a taste and aroma distinctive to Belgian style beers. Its not easy to pin that flavor down: cola? exotic central northern European spices? the water of Wallonia? Hard to tell, but two things are clear: its not like any other style you'll try, and it's tasty. Like, not the type of beer you'd knock back after a day of yard work, but maybe definitely a tasty option for putting yourself into a nice little coma after a day on the slopes (assuming that can happen this year).

Last but not least: Chimay Red. Lets be honest: by this point, the sensitivity of my palate is suspect, to say the least. Not too say I couldn't distinguish this between Schuler's or Huber, but my assessment probably leaves room for improvement. With that, I'd have to say that Red tastes an awful lot like Blue. Not spot on exact, necessarily, but mighty close. Again, that distinctive flavor of Belgian beers: a little bitter, a little exotic, tasty but hard to pin down. Good, and while not necessarily an acquired taste, certainly one that you'll either love or hate. If you're looking for a traditional, simple beer, you won't find it here; if you're looking for something more refined, then this (and Blue) are the gold standards.

So, in all, where does Chimay stand? Their reputation as a refined, quality brewer is well-earned and is reflected in each of their beers. That Belgium-specific flavor is hard to beat (Seriously-anyone, what is that? And whats a muscat? And what do muscats eat?) and not something you run across every day, even in domestic craft beers (or microbrews, or whatever today's term is for brewers that aren't Anheuser/Busch/Coors/Molson/Miller/Pabst). But again, what price do you put on that flavor? A 750ml bottle of Red is about that of a sixer of anything from New Belgium: I'd argue that the production quality between the two can't be all that different, which means that you're paying a lot more for that flavor. But damn, that flavor...good stuff. If you're looking for something for a special occasion, buck up and spend big. Totally worth it.

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